Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III.: OF THE PLACE OF MEETING AND ITS DEPENDENCIES. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2
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CHAPTER III.: OF THE PLACE OF MEETING AND ITS DEPENDENCIES. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 2.
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OF THE PLACE OF MEETING AND ITS DEPENDENCIES.
Of the Building suitable for a numerous assembly.
Magnificence of architecture in a building intended for a large political assembly, would be almost always injurious with regard to its utility. The essential points to be considered are—
1. Facility of hearing for the members.
2. Facility of seeing for the president.
3. Personal convenience for the individuals;
And lastly, Fitness for the service.
If any of the seats are so distant that the voice with difficulty reaches them, attention being rendered painful, will not be long sustained. The same distance will deprive one part of the assembly of the inspection of its president, and from this cause alone may give rise to habitual disorder.
Besides, those who do not hear are obliged to decide upon a borrowed opinion. It was thus that the great popular assemblies, in the ancient republics, were necessarily subjected to the direction of two or three demagogues.
The difficulty of making themselves heard may also drive from the service the individuals of greatest ability, if the strength of their lungs be not proportioned to the space that their voice is required to fill. Demosthenes might have been obliged to give way to Stentor. The first quality required would no longer be mental superiority, but a physical advantage, which, without being incompatible with talent, does not necessarily imply it. The presumption is even on the other side, and in favour of the feeble and valetudinary individual,—inaptitude for corporeal exercises being partly the cause and partly the effect of a studious disposition.
A form nearly circular, seats rising amphitheatrically above each other—the seat of the president so placed that he may see all the assembly—a central space for the secretaries and papers—contiguous rooms for committees—a gallery for auditors—a separate box for the reporters for the public papers;—such are the most important points. I do not enter into detail respecting the salubrity of the hall and its adaptation for the service. I only add, that a hall well adapted to all these objects would have more influence than would at first be suspected, in securing the assiduity of the members, and facilitating the exercise of their functions.
Table of Motions.
Reference is here made to a very simple mechanical apparatus for exhibiting to the eyes of the assembly the motion on which they are deliberating. The mere reading of a motion can only impart an imperfect and fugitive acquaintance with it. There is no other method for really presenting it to the minds of the members of an assembly, beside that of presenting it to their eyes.
A general idea of this table only will be presented here. We may suppose a gallery above the president’s chair, which presents a front consisting of two frames, nine feet high by six feet wide, filled with black canvas, made to open like folding doors;—that this canvas is regularly pierced for the reception of letters of so large a size as to be legible in every part of the place of meeting. These letters might be attached by an iron hook, in such manner that they could not be deranged. When a motion is about to become the object of debate, it would be given to the compositors, who would transcribe it upon the table, and by closing the gallery, exhibit it like a placard to the eyes of the whole assembly.
The utility of this invention, in its most general point of view, consists in so arranging matters that no one could avoid knowing upon what motion he ought to vote.
It is true, that what is of most importance to be known, is the sense of a proposition, and not its tenor—the spirit rather than the letter. But it is only by a knowledge of the letter that we can be sure of the spirit—a mistake in only a single word may entirely change the purport of a discourse: when the words are no longer present to the memory, we are in danger of falling into mistakes—a danger which it is a folly to incur, when it may be avoided by so simple and infallible a method.
There is not a moment in the course of a debate, in which each member has not occasion to know the motion, and to be able to consult it, either for making a correct application of what he hears, or for the purpose of taking an active part in the discussion. This knowledge is of the first importance to him, whether he act as a judge, by giving his vote—or as an advocate, by speaking for or against it.
In the first place, with respect to those who listen, nothing could be more agreeable and useful to them than this table of motions. Everything which relieves the memory, facilitates the understanding—there is much less doubt about the meaning, when there is none about the words. Upon the simple enunciation or reading of a motion—all those who have been distracted—all those who readily forget—all those who are slow in understanding,—are necessarily ignorant of the subject of debate, or obliged to apply to others for information. Hence arise irregular movements, reciprocal interruptions, confusion, and noise.
In the next place, as to those who speak, the utility of this table is still more clear. If the motion be of a certain length, it requires for its recollection an effort of memory, which distracts the attention at a moment in which there is a necessity for employing it altogether in another manner. There ought not to be a necessity of seeking for words when there is already too much to do in seeking for arguments: the hesitation occasioned by such a search, disturbs the current of the thoughts.
But besides, this effort of memory is often inefficacious. Nothing is more common than to see orators, and even practised orators, falling into involuntary errors with respect to the precise terms of a motion. If this be not perceived, an incorrect judgment is the result of the error: if it be perceived, the protests against it produce either apologies or disputes, and thence loss of time in accusations and defences.
The table of motions would contribute in many respects to the perfection of the debate. We have seen that it would preserve the orators from involuntary errors: it would be no less serviceable to the assembly as a security against intentional false misrepresentations—against insidious representations, by which sentiments are imputed to an antagonist which do not belong to him. This defect of candour springs from the same principle as calumny, which hopes that some portion of the reproach with which it asperses will not be wiped away. The individual who practises this meanness is screened by the difficulty of distinguishing his false representation from involuntary error. Remove this difficulty, and the temptation to be guilty of the meanness will be removed also.
Digressions are another inconvenience in debates: they often arise from the weakness of the mind, which without intending it, loses sight of the point with which it ought to be engaged. But when the orator forgets his subject, and begins to wander, a table of motions offers the readiest means for recalling him. Under the present régime, how is this evil remedied? It is necessary for a member to rise, to interrupt the speaker, and call him to order. This is a provocation—it is a reproach—it wounds his self-love. The orator attacked, defends himself; there is no longer a debate upon the motion, but a discussion respecting the application of his arguments. The unpleasantness of these scenes, when they are not animated by the spirit of party, leads to the toleration of a multitude of digressions, experience having proved that the remedy is worse than the disease; whilst as to the president, although it be his duty to prevent these wanderings, his prudence leads him to avoid giving frequent and disagreeable admonitions, and entering into altercations which might compromise his dignity or his impartiality.
But if we suppose the table of motions placed above him, the case would be very different. He might, without interrupting the speaker, warn him by a simple gesture; and this quiet sign would not be accompanied by the danger of a personal appeal. It would be a sedative, and not a stimulant—a suggestion, and not an accusation; it would be the act, not of an adversary, but of a judge. The member would not be called upon to stop—would not be required to make a painful submission and avowal of error; he would only have, in continuing his speech, to return to the subject of discussion; and he could not be ignorant that the sign of the president was an appeal to the assembly, the attention of which had been directed to him.
In conclusion, it may be observed that this table would give great facility in the production of good amendments. If a simple reading be sufficient for correctly seizing the spirit of a motion, it is not sufficient for giving attention to all its terms. When observations are to be made upon style, we must not trust to memory: it is desirable that the writing should be under the eye—that it may be considered in many points of view—that the microscope of attention may be applied to all its parts; and there is no other method of discovering the imperfections of detail. This kind of criticism is a peculiar talent, in which individuals are formed to excel who often do not possess any of the gifts of oratory. The profound grammarian is more useful than is generally thought to the legislator.
This table would possess a further merit, if it should only procure for the assembly the services of one clever man, who had been discouraged by a defect of memory, and retained by this defect in a state of inaction. It is well known that the two most important faculties of the mind—judgment and invention—are often very strong in those individuals who have very weak memories, especially with regard to words. With respect to talent, as well as virtue, the smaller the service required, the less the danger of its being wanting.
It may perhaps be said, that the printing of the motions before the debate, would nearly accomplish the same object, and would supply the place of this table.
But in the course of a debate, how many accidental and unforeseen motions may be made!—how many amendments which there is not time to print! It may also be observed, that a paper to be read, to be consulted, does not afford to the hearers, or the speaker, the same facility as a table which remains immovably before their eyes. It is not necessary continually to stoop for the purpose of listening or speaking, but the eye glances over the lines of the table without interruption. And besides this, the great utility of the table, the strength which its gives to the regulation against useless digressions simply by means of an admonitory sign, is an advantage not to be obtained by printing the motion.*
Description of a Table of Motions.
The plan here pointed out may serve for a first attempt: but the easier the mode of execution, the less important are the details.
Frames.—They may be made like two folding doors. They should be filled with canvas, stretched so as to present an even surface, not sinking in the middle.
Size of the letters.—This would depend upon the size of the place of meeting;—a black ground, the letters gilt;—a strong light thrown upon the table;—the form of the letter rather oblong than square.
Method of fixing them.—The letters being made like a button, should have a hook, by means of which they might be fixed with the greatest ease. The regularity of the lines might be secured by a thread in the cloth.
Composition of the table.—The two folding leaves turn upon their hinges like a door. The compositors whilst at work are visible to the assembly (which will secure their diligence and emulation.) The two leaves closed together, will present the appearance of two pages of an open book.
Amendments.—These might be exhibited upon a separate table, placed immediately beside the others, with a reference which would direct the eye to the part of the original motion which it was wished to amend, and a word at the top of the table, which should simply indicate that the amendment is suppressive, additive, or substitutive.
Multiplication of tables.—There might be an assortment of tables, upon which all the known motions might be previously prepared, and thus be made to succeed each other rapidly.
Contents of the Table of Motions.
Suppose that each frame is nine feet high by six wide, and the letters one and a half inch by three quarters of an inch, the two leaves of the table would contain more than four ordinary octavo printed pages. This may be ascertained by calculation.
At fifty-two feet distant, I have found in a church that the table of the decalogue was perfectly legible for ordinary eyes, when the letters were three quarters of an inch high.
Composition.—The labours of the compositors may perhaps be accelerated by what is called the logographical principle, which consists in composing not with letters, but with entire words.
By the multiplication of tables, a composition which was too long to be presented all at once to the eyes of the assembly, might be presented in parts. A project of a law, for example, whatever was its extent, might be previously prepared, and the tables shifted, without suspending the labours of the assembly.
But this plan has its limits;—that is to say, there are cases and circumstances which would prevent its being employed on account of time and space: these limits do not, however, furnish any argument against its utility upon all occasions on which it can be employed. This utility is so great—the inconveniences of the present plan are so manifest, that one might be astonished that this method had not been thought of before: but in these affairs it is not proper to be astonished at anything. Under the auspices of routine, barbarism gives law to civilization, and ignorance prevails over experience.
On a Table of Regulations.
When good rules are established, it still remains to make arrangements for facilitating their execution—for making them known. A law can have no effect except as it is known.
The regulations of the assembly, reduced into the form of a table, and readable from all parts of the place of assembly, ought to be placed by the side of the president.
If they are too voluminous, the tables ought to be multiplied; but the essential points ought to be collected together in the principal table.
In every large political assembly, nothing is more frequent than an appeal to the regulations, either for attack or for defence. The contravention consumes time—the correction consumes still more. The rules are always as if they were non-existing for one part of the assembly. The new members are but little acquainted with them; and they are not always present to the minds of the most experienced veterans. Such, at least, is the state of things in the British parliament;—and it cannot be otherwise, because the regulations, far from being exposed to the eyes, only exist by tradition, and are confided only to the keeping of a treacherous memory.
A small table would not answer the end: a large table is an object of study in every moment when the attention is vacant. The least deviation becomes sensible; and hence deviations become rare; for rules are rarely transgressed when they cannot be transgressed with impunity,—when the law which condemns is before your eyes, and the tribunal which judges you at the same moment, no one will be more tempted to violate it than he would be tempted to steal red-hot iron. Procedure, which moves on other occasions with the pace of the tortoise, is in this case rapid as the lightning.
General laws, whatever may be done for their promulgation, cannot be made universally notorious. But particular laws made for one assembly may be constantly visible within it. The method is so easy, it cannot be said to be unknown. There is not a club in England which has not its regulations exhibited in its place of meeting. There is the same foresight in gaming-houses. But the bitter reflection often recurs, that the wisdom displayed in the conduct of human affairs is often in the inverse proportion of their importance. Governments have great progress to make before they will have attained, in the management of public matters, to the prudence which commonly conducts private affairs. The cause may be easily pointed out, but not the remedy.
[* ]I proposed this plan of Mr. Bentham’s to many of the members of the Constituent Assembly of France. They considered it very ingenious, and even very useful, but that it could not be carried into effect, because of the rapidity of the motions and operations of the assembly. During many months I attended all its sittings with the greatest assiduity; and I cannot forget how often I have experienced difficulty in ascertaining what was the subject of deliberation: I have asked many members who were not able to inform me. When even the motion was known, it was only in its general object—never in all its details and in its precise terms. There were consequently continual disputes about words: a momentary absence, a momentary abstraction, a late entry, were sufficient to produce entire ignorance of the subject of debate. Individuals sought to instruct themselves by conversations, which formed the assembly into groupes, and gave rise to little particular debates. A multitude of motions thus presented passed as spectres, and were only half known. Hence the indolent members either went away without voting, or voted upon trust; that is to say, not being able to form an opinion, they abandoned themselves to that of their party.